This Age of Madness and Bioethics

It takes a peculiar kind of societal madness to support an entire industry of people devoted to telling us solemnly just how bad, terrible, and wrong it would be to use medicine to live longer. Here is an open access paper in which a bioethicist bemoans the inevitability of extended healthy life - calling it tragic: "Biogerontology is sometimes viewed as similar to other forms of biomedical research in that it seeks to understand and treat a pathological process. Yet the prospect of treating ageing is extraordinary in terms of the profound changes to the human condition that would result. Recent advances in biogerontology allow a clearer view of the ethical issues and dilemmas that confront humanity with respect to treating ageing. For example, they imply that organismal senescence is a disease process with a broad spectrum of pathological consequences in late life (causing or exascerbating cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disease and many others). Moreover, in laboratory animals, it is possible to decelerate ageing, extend healthy adulthood and reduce the age-incidence of a broad spectrum of ageing-related diseases. This is accompanied by an overall extension of lifespan, sometimes of a large magnitude. Discussions of the ethics of treating ageing sometimes involve hand-wringing about detrimental consequences (e.g. to society) of marked life extension which, arguably, would be a form of enhancement technology. Yet given the great improvements in health that decelerated ageing could provide, it would seem that the only possible ethical course is to pursue it energetically. Thus, decelerated ageing has an element of tragic inevitability: its benefits to health compel us to pursue it, despite the transformation of human society, and even human nature, that this could entail."

Link: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1561/108.long

Comments

It takes a peculiar kind of societal madness to support an entire industry of people devoted to telling us solemnly just how bad, terrible, and wrong it would be to use medicine to live longer.

This makes clear that government is just a form of criminal enterprise.

Posted by: kurt9 at December 7th, 2010 10:48 AM

I think your distrust of bioethics has caused you to vastly overstate things here, Reason. Contrary to your take on the above, I see these sentiments as a breath of fresh air. Far from saying that curing aging would be "bad, terrible, and wrong" as you put it, Gems thinks the benefits of doing so "compel us to pursue it". A bioethicist publishing at the Royal Society believes it's morally necessary that society cure aging! That's great news!

The bit about "tragic inevitability" is entirely incidental. Gems is merely waxing nostalgic about that fact that lots of things are going to change, even as other things vastly improve. That is his right and is not objectionable in itself. In fact it is appropriate that an ethicist consider all sides of the equation. However, his main point is clear: Now that it is apparent that we can; we must do something about aging.

Posted by: Ben at December 7th, 2010 12:31 PM

@Ben: From the end of the full thing: "Either one must pursue it and reduce suffering but risk extending lifespan to a degree that is socially and existentially problematic; or one must abjure it thereby avoiding the troubles that life extension may cause, but permitting avoidable suffering on a great scale. Arguably, the only realistic course is the first one. Of these two outcomes of decelerated ageing, protection against disease, and life extension, the first carries far greater moral weight. The possibility of alleviating suffering on such a scale is one that we are morally obligated to pursue, however ambivalent we may feel about the second outcome. Some commentators, including life cycle traditionalists, have argued that ageing is a good thing, such that preventing it to any degree would be wrong. But given the health benefits of decelerated ageing, although we may not particularly want life extension (though many, of course, do), we may simply have to accept it as a side effect of a greater benefit."

I think that quote makes the author's viewpoint fairly clear - that living longer in good health is somehow a terrible, terrible thing, an undesirable side-effect to be grudgingly endured.

Posted by: Reason at December 7th, 2010 12:37 PM

The degree to which human existence has been devoted to the time line of aging and death has created a great investment in structures that would be destroyed by delaying aging and thus death, radically. Religions, careers, procreation...the apple carts that may be upset by pursuing the science is a threat to many -perhaps most people's- world views.

However, the imminence of actual death, seems to be greater as a fear. The "tragedy" in this article is abstract. Presented with the horror of cancer, or the real tragedy of Alzhiemer's disease and its slow death of personhood, he may rethink. Everyone who claims to be against these technologies will desperately beg for them when they're facing real death. They know this and they're indulging in a deadly form of intellectual and smug superiority, as if they had some kind of fortitude in accepting the "cycles of life" that weaker mortals don't posess.

Anyone who has seen the truth of disease, slow death, or even violent death, would sign up in a moment to end it. Anyone who understand the potential for science but blocks it, for such puffery as the "tragedy" is full of crap. It reminds me of people who bemoaned the change in Times Square as the drug dealers and prostitutes were moved out. Oh how they missed the "real" street life. Anyone who had been mugged, or found needles on their doorstep didn't romanticize it. But the trendoids from Soho or the journalists from the Upper East Side would go on and on about how things had changed and wasn't it too too bad? Right.

Posted by: Tom at December 7th, 2010 1:25 PM

No, Reason, that isn't what's being said.

That you can interpret feeling "ambivalent" about the "socially and existentially problematic" consequences of curing aging as believing "living longer in good health is somehow a terrible, terrible thing" is cause for concern, especially when the author has explicitly stated that it is a moral necessity that we cure aging. To be frank, it evokes the sense that you may be as ideologically blinkered as you wish to depict the bioethicists as being.

Posted by: Ben at December 7th, 2010 2:10 PM

I actually had the same reaction as Ben. While the ethicist's fretting about social change is annoying (and short-sightedly conservative), he does in the end come down in favor of reversing aging on ethical grounds. This is movement in a positive direction.

Posted by: Bonobo at December 7th, 2010 4:07 PM

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